Corey – Honorary Bat Boy for the Oriole’s!

Image

Corey played another great season of baseball this year. He’s been playing since he was four years old. He loved it, and he’s good at it. For us, it’s another miracle; the child with half a heart can play a legitimate sport.

After one of his games this year he came home with a contest entry form. It was for the Chick-Fil-A Honorary Bat Kids Sweeptstakes. I barely looked at the form. How many sweepstakes have I entered in my life and won? Zero. Actually that’s not true – I won free lunch for the office once from a radio station maybe 15 years ago. Anyway, I just thought, “He’s never going to win.” But Corey was insistent, so I offered him a pen, an envelope and a stamp, and I told him that if he wanted to enter, he’d have to handle it himself. He did.

And he won. Corey was not surprised by the win. Me, I was shocked. I spoke to a Baltimore Oriole’s representative, and he gave me the contest details as well as the basics of the prize, which were as follows:

“This summer Chick-fil-A and the Baltimore Orioles have teamed up to present the Bat Kids Sweepstakes. Children ages 6-14 can enter to win the title Honorary Bat Kid at an Oriole’s game this summer.

Winners will be given:

  • Early on-field Access before general public admission
  • One-on-one interaction with players
  • Autographs
  • Pre-game Ceremony featured on the jumbotron with the Oriole Bird and Chick-fil-A Cow
  • Co-branded Orioles and Chick-fil-A t-shirt
  • Four game tickets
  • Chick-fil-A Prize Pack filled with coupons and free prizes
  • Congratulatory Certificate
  • Memorable photo of the on-field ceremony

Winners will also be able to watch Batting Practice from in front of the Orioles Dugout for one hour during Orioles Batting Practice.”

Wow! First we scheduled a game to attend, which was Thursday, June 12th against the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards. We were given four free tickets, meaning our family was able to attend together. Next, I spoke with the Chick-Fil-A rep, and he asked us to come to the local store to pick up our prize, which was touted as “Free Chick-Fil-A for a year!” – it’s actually 52 chicken sandwiches. Still awesome, don’t get me wrong. We picked up the prize and had our picture taken with the cow. Photos of that are in the June 10th Chick-Fil-A facebook feed.

The night of the Camden Yards Oriole’s game arrived, and it was pouring down rain. Buckets. Cats and dogs. Pick a cliche. I was pretty sure the game was going to be rained out and Noah’s Ark was going to make an appearance. However, we were mostly concerned that Corey wouldn’t get to experience the pre-game activities. The game was scheduled to start at 7:05, but we were asked to arrive by 4:30 for Corey’s activities. At 4:30, we met the Oriole’s rep, Brian, at Home Plate Plaza, he handed Corey a t-shirt, hat, and professional ball and asked him to put on the shirt & hat. Corey changed quickly in the nearby restroom, and then he headed off with Brian.

Corey was supposed to watch batting practice, but the ball players weren’t batting. They were practicing their kayaking skills. However, Corey did get to spend time with the players in the dugout. Not too shabby. He got his ball signed by 7 current players. He was also given a tour of the locker room and the press box. Corey chatted the players up and returned to us grinning like a fool. He also got 3 signatures from former players who just happened to be at Camden Yards offering to sign fan paraphernalia.

Not long after, Corey was allowed on the field for a certificate ceremony with another little girl. We had to stay behind, but we were able to get close to the field to watch. During this ceremony, Corey and the other girl appeared on the jumbotron with the Chick-Fil-A cow and the Oriole’s mascot. Brian asked Corey to wave to his family. Corey interpreted “wave to your family” to mean “act like a maniac.” Corey was such a ham that the other people on the field laughed and clapped for him. That child is no shrinking violet.

Image

We grabbed some food for dinner and found our seats. Miraculously, the rain stopped, the tarps were rolled back, and the ball game started on time! We stayed for a few innings, and the boys loved it. It was late, though, and a school night, so we left before the game was even half over. As I tucked Corey into bed that night, he asked me to let him know, first thing in the morning, if the Oriole’s won. (They did.)

It’s a night he’ll remember for the rest of his life.

A Night in Zurich (Last Day)

Image

We spent our last night in Zurich, mostly because the hotel was close to the airport. We’d spent the day visiting Jungfraujoch, and we were completely exhausted. So when we discovered that the Alden Luxury Suite Hotel was spectacular, we decided to just stay in and order room service. Ah, room service. We had originally planned to explore Zurich and have dinner out, but we quickly nixed that idea.

The Alden is a boutique hotel with only 20 rooms, much like our Paris hotel. But unlike our Paris hotel, the room was ENORMOUS. It was an apartment, really. It sported a huge bedroom, a living room, a dining area, two bathrooms (who doesn’t need two bathrooms?), and a balcony. The master bath was as big as my kitchen. It was crazy. Why wouldn’t we want to stay and enjoy it?

During the course of our trip, everywhere we stayed Damian noted that we were celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary. Most people just nodded and offered some form of congratulations, but the Alden upgraded us to that palatial room and gave us a chilled bottle of champagne. Sweet! We changed into some giant fluffy robes and ordered room service. The food was nothing to rave about, but it was fast and easy. We paired it with the champagne and some Swiss chocolates. A nice end to a wild day.

The next morning, June 1st, we rose early, checked out, hopped in the car and headed for the airport. Thank goodness it was a Sunday morning and nobody was out, because navigating the streets of Zurich was not easy. Damian had to listen to me instead of the GPS, because she just wasn’t fast enough to keep up with him. Turn here, turn there, turn over there! Oops, we missed it. When we missed a turn and went the wrong way, we came upon a group of six police cars.

Six police cars. In Zurich. And we’re getting pulled over. Panic attack anyone?

We didn’t know what was going on. My first thought was that we had taken a restricted road toward a federal building, and we were either going to be instructed to turn around or taken to the hoosegow. (Hey Mom! We got arrested in Switzerland. Can you come bail us out? It’s only a 9-hour flight. No biggie.) But the officer just greeted us, asked us if we spoke English, inquired about our business on the road that morning, and wished us a safe flight home.

Phew! In hindsight, we think it must have been a sobriety check point. At 7:30 AM. I guess the Swiss like to party.

We made it to the airport, through customs (we were asked several questions by the Swiss customs staff before we could board the plane), and to our seats for the long flight home. They were offering a free glass of wine in a plastic cup with lunch – possibly in an effort to knock everybody out – and a couple of in-flight movies. I took advantage of all of that. We made our connection in Philadelphia and took our 17-minute hop back to BWI.

We got home at 7:30 PM, so the boys were still up, which was wonderful. I missed them terribly, and I couldn’t wait to hug and kiss them. Mason was wildly excited to see us – he pretty much hurled himself into my arms – and both boys talked simultaneously non-stop about all the fun times they’d shared with their grandparents. We enjoyed putting them to bed, and we crashed hard ourselves not long after.

Would we go back? It’s a big world, and there are so many places we still want to explore. But I fell in love with Provence and Interlaken, so if we could squeeze either of those places in on a future trip, then yes. Part of me wants to just chuck it all and get a job as a waitress at the Victoria Jungfrau Hotel.

Many thanks to my wonderful husband for all his hard work planning this trip. The memories will last forever.

Ziplining in Jungfraujoch – The Top of Europe! (Day 10)

Image

We woke at 6:30 AM to begin our greatest adventure yet. On Saturday, May 31st, we traveled to Jungfraujoch – the top of Europe – at 11,745 feet above sea level. Matt Lauer went for “The Today Show” years ago, and you can see the video here: Jungfraujoch Today Show Video. It’s a fantastic 8-minute glance into just what we experienced. Worth a look. Accessing Jungfraujoch required 3 steep, expensive mountain trains and 2.5 hours of travel to reach the peak.

At 6:30 AM one of the friendly staff at the Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel called our room and said, “Good morning, Mrs. Fleming.” I croaked back, “Good morning. Thank you,” and hung up the phone to begin the day. Damian was already up, and I knew he’d have ants in his pants to get started on our journey. I resisted the urge to throw a pillow over my head and go back to sleep, and instead I got up and dressed for breakfast.

Breakfast at the hotel was included with the price of the room, and the first seating was at 7:00 AM. Guess what time we got there? I’ll give you a hint: not 7:01 AM. We were the first hotel guests to arrive, and the staff seated us near the window in their atrium, which offered stunning views of the Swiss Alps. The breakfast was served buffet style, and it was the fanciest buffet I’d ever seen. (Those of you who enjoyed the Spices breakfast buffet at the Royal Hideaway may be surprised to hear that.)

We ordered drinks and then picked up our plates. Anything I could imagine was spread out before me. French toast with whipped cream and syrup, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, an enormous assortment of gourmet cheeses arranged on tiered plates, sliced meats, croissants and rolls with butter and 8 different flavors of jam (everything from cherry to orange marmalade), fruit tarts, fresh fruit (including strawberries, blackberries and pineapple), various muffins, coffee, different flavored juices, a full compliment of Japanese fair (miso soup, etc.), and a giant honeycomb with fresh honey dripping down over it. I could have sat there for hours enjoying all the delicious goodies and looking at the Alps.

After breakfast, we were able to purchase our mountain train tickets (at a discount, which was helpful, because they were pricey) from the hotel. The hotel offers no late check-out options, so we had to check out and leave our bags with the concierge. Our first train was set to leave shortly after 8:00 AM from the Interlaken Ost railway station, which was within walking distance of our hotel. Tickets in hand, we struck out for our first train ride. This is a map of the route we took (note that we went up one side of the mountain – the green path – and came down another – the yellow path).

Image

The first leg was a relatively short 25-minute ride up to Lauterbrunnen. While the views were enjoyable, we were still close to the base of the Alps at this stage. In Lauterbrunnen we changed trains and took another mountain train up to Kleine Scheidegg. This train was pretty steep, and it offered some incredible views of the surrounding mountains and Swiss towns. We switched trains once again at the station in Kleine Scheidegg for the final leg of the journey – the train to Jungfraujoch.

The final train chugged slowly up the mountainside, bringing us through dark tunnels to the peak. There were 5-minute stops along the route, allowing riders to exit the train and snap pictures memorializing the journey to the top. At around 10:30 AM, we reached the station at Jungfraujoch and got off the train to begin our tour.

There was a lot more to do and see than I expected. Restaurants, bars, shops, even an ice palace in addition to the unreal views. We came for the views, and we only expected to be up there for an hour, maybe 90 minutes. We stayed for 3 hours. 

We began our tour at the Spinx – this was the absolute highest point. From there, we had views of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains. Since it was a sunny day, we were able to see through the cotton-like cloud cover all the way down to the ground far, far below. People liken the views from the Spinx to the views from Mount Everest. Minus the swag of saying, “I climbed Mount Everest!” I’ll never know if that’s really true, but I must say, standing above the clouds outside of an airplane in the thin air was absolutely majestic. The surrounding snow-capped mountains only added to the magic of the place. This is a shot from the Spinx, and, if you look closely, you can see the ground through the veils of cloud

Image

We continued our tour of the area by visiting the ice palace. Everything was made of ice. The sculptures, the walls, the ceilings, even the floor – all ice. There was a sign depicting a man slipping and falling as we entered the first cave. When you’ve got international guests all speaking different languages, best to go with funny pictures. We did not fall.

Image

The next area was called “snow fun.” Here we found an outdoor area nestled high in the mountain tops which featured hiking, skiing, sledding, and ziplining. Guess which one we picked? For 20 Swiss francs, we chose the ziplining! I’d never done it before, and I thought, “If I don’t do this, I am going to regret it for the rest of my days.” So we did it. We each had to put on a harness and climb a seriously rickety ladder up to a platform where we were given a lesson on detaching from the line at the bottom.

I went first. Mostly so I wouldn’t chicken out. I attached my line, sat down, and I was off! Seeing the white mountains fly past my face, feeling the wind – oh, what an adrenaline rush! And then I wiped out at the bottom and got snow in my pants. Everybody does, though. You just land in the snow, detach yourself from the line, and stumble out of the way of the next crazy zipliner. It was great – we both loved it. Here we are, in our gear, after ziplining.

Image

After that adventure, I needed some refreshment. So we bought some hot coffee from a little bar and sat down to watch the other adventurous people, enjoying the sunshine on the snow. We walked to the plateau afterward, which is a wide flat area (hence the name) that features a web cam. We stood and waved at that webcam like idiots, hoping to get a shot of ourselves up there preserved for all time. In true, “We made it! Check us out!” fashion. There are two stills of us from the webcam, captured by my father-in-law, who got up at 1:30 AM in Las Vegas (there’s a 9-hour time difference between Las Vegas and Jungfraujoch) to find us up there. We are so thankful to him for going above and beyond.

Lunch! There are restaurants in Jungfraujoch, but, as you might imagine, they are pricey. The only way to get supplies up there is via train. But what the hell, right? You’re only there once. We sat down at a table that afforded more great views of the mountains around us and enjoyed a delicious lunch. Personally, I don’t mind paying more if the food is good and the atmosphere is nice. Damian had a lobster bisque and salad, and I had a creamy leek soup with ravioli and shitake mushrooms paired with a salad. The bread basket, which was 3.50 Swiss francs per person, offered pretzel-twisted rolls and butter. It was all fantastic.

Next stop: shopping! I have never seen my husband express so much glee over shopping in my life. He bought all sorts of nick-knacks, including a cow with a bell. Maybe it was the altitude. I bought a gorgeous smoky quartz necklace and matching earrings. That was the first trinket I’d bought for myself on the trip, so I didn’t feel guilty about dropping a wad.

Finally, after 3 hours up in the thin air, we hopped a train and made our way down the other side of the mountain, through Grindelwald. We picked up our bags at the hotel and, just when we felt like resting and enjoying the hotel, we hopped in the car and drove 90 minutes to Zurich. That drive featured the longest tunnel yet – 5,200 meters! Damian said, “Whoa. That’s a 5 K!” Yep.

We eventually made it to our hotel, totally wiped out from our adventures. But I’ll talk about that, and our trip home, another day….

Cable Car Ride in the Swiss Alps, Anyone? (Day 9)

Image

Well, we didn’t blow off the top of Mont Ventoux on day 8 of our adventure, so we opted to head to Switzerland on day 9. On Friday, May 30th, we woke for the last time in Avignon at 6:45 AM. This was way too early for the B&B owner, but she left us some croissants and cheese to take in the car with us for breakfast.

If you’re eating a sandwich, you might want to put it down, because I’m going to be offering a seriously nasty description shortly. We drove for 6 hours to Interlaken, Switzerland, and on the way we learned a few things. First, the Swiss make tunnels that are feats of modern engineering. Why go over a mountain when you can just punch a hole right through it? We must have gone through 30 or 40 tunnels of varying length. There were moments when I wondered if the light at the end of the tunnel would ever appear.

Second, we learned that restrooms along the highways are disgusting. Foul. And I’ve been in some foul bathrooms in my life. Nothing as bad as these. There were no toilets, just holes in the ground that you had to squat over. Third-world-country nasty. (shiver) We used them only when absolutely necessary, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get those horrible images out of my head. Okay, the gross part is over.

Third, when we reached the border of France and prepared to drive into Switzerland, we learned that the Swiss cared even less about who we were – and why we were entering their country – than the French. And the French just stamped our passports without even looking at our faces. I bet I could have handed over a passport picturing a 6-foot-tall Asian man and the French still would have stamped me in. The Swiss didn’t even want to see our passports. We could have lost our passports back in a Paris bar, and they wouldn’t have cared a fig. They wanted 40 Swiss francs for a highway pass, and that was it. Give us your money, and come on in!

A lady holding a money belt stopped us on the Swiss border and asked for the highway pass fee. Of course we didn’t have 40 Swiss francs, and because the last toll road had been almost 30 euros (yikes!), we didn’t have 40 euros either. Luckily she directed us to a spot where we could park and pay inside by credit card, or we would have been hosed.

After that minor adventure, we finished the drive to Interlaken and found our hotel, the Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel. Interlaken sits between two lakes at the base of the Swiss Alps, and it is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I’d love to go back. And about this hotel, may I just say, WOW. It’s the nicest hotel we’ve ever stayed in, save perhaps The Bellagio in Las Vegas. The architecture was stunning, the room was exceptional in size and decor, and the windows in our room actually opened up to the cool air and views of the Swiss Alps. I wish we’d had more time to spend in that hotel just enjoying the space and views.

Image

We were pretty hungry after our travels, and I was dying for some coffee, so we checked our bags at the front desk and headed out to the hotel’s terrace restaurant for lunch. The weather was spectacular, and we could see the rose gardens, the park, and the rise of the Alps as we enjoyed soup and coffee. It was a wonderful respite in the middle of our frantic travels.

Because we had little time to spend in Interlaken, we decided to check in, clean up, and head out in search of a cable car ride. More adventure! We took the car and drove about twenty minutes through the Swiss countryside, admiring the lake views, the cottages up on the hillsides, the mountain trains, and the cows. Lotta cows in Switzerland. Anyway, we reached the cable car station, located in Stechelberg. There were three different legs to this trip; we could choose to take a gondola up to Gimmelwald (the first Swiss village on the mountainside), connect to a second gondola and continue up higher to Mürren (a second, higher mountain village), and/or continue up to the summit with a third and final gondola.

Gimmelwald is so isolated that you can only reach it via cable car. You can’t drive up there, giving it an isolated feel. At this point, I wasn’t sure how many cable car/gondola rides I was going to be excited for, so we just bought round-trip tickets between Stechelberg and Gimmelwald. The car was leaving in 3 minutes, so we rushed over and crammed ourselves on with the other travelers. We were surrounded on all sides by clear glass and steel, offering unbeatable views of the Swiss Alps.

And up, up, up we went! Looking up the mountainside, I felt like we were traveling straight up into the air. When we arrived in Gimmelwald, it was stunning. Just a tiny village with houses cut into the mountainside and stacks upon stacks of firewood everywhere we looked. There were no cars and very few people about; stands offering goods for sale were on the honor system (choose your item, leave your money, have a nice day!), and we saw more goats than humans. It almost felt like a ghost town. Almost. The goats and the smoke seeping out of chimneys spoke of life.

Image

We decided to take the second gondola up to Mürren. Mostly because, if it’s not the summit, it’s not high enough for Damian! But I was charmed by the quiet beauty of Gimmelwald, so I was willing to take another gondola ride and explore Mürren. Only we hit a snafu here – there were only machines at this level requiring cash for ticket purchase. No humans manning the ticket counter. So we made a plea with the gondola operator, and he agreed to take us up to Mürren, provided we bought a round-trip ticket at the manned ticket counter up there. We agreed, and we were off!

There’s nothing quite like the view from a cable car high in the Swiss Alps. We snapped pictures and pressed our noses to the glass to take in as much of the scenery as possible before we stepped off at our next destination. We arrived to find that Mürren was a bit larger than Gimmelwald, and while it also had that feel of isolation from the world, there were hotels up there rather than just tiny B&Bs. We explored the town, saw a few more humans, and while I tried to fight the feeling that I might just roll off the edge of the mountain, we decided it was time for a beer! So we found a restaurant with giant windows looking down over the mountain’s edge and enjoyed a beer. Now that was an experience.

Image

We took the cable cars back down the mountain to Stechelberg and then drove back to the hotel. We struck out to explore Interlaken, and we found a local place for dinner called The Ox Restaurant. It was great! We sat at a huge picnic table with a bunch of other diners. The people to our right were speaking German, to our left Japanese, but I didn’t feel like we were too close together. We split a traditional Swiss dish – sausage with tangy mustard sauce – and an ox burger. Have you had an ox burger? I had never had the pleasure. We both loved it. A bottle of red was a nice compliment to our meal.

We crashed hard and woke the next day for our greatest adventure to date: summiting Jungfraujoch, the top of Europe….

 

Mont Ventoux & the Côtes du Rhône Wine Region (Day 8)

Image

Thursday morning, May 29th, we lost our minds and thought, “Hey! Let’s drive up the side of a mountain today!” Mont Ventoux – yes, the one from The Tour de France. The summit is 1,912 m up, this mountain sports a nickname of “The Beast of Provence,” and did I mention that it gets windy at the top? As in 56 mph winds 240 days a year, and wind speeds of 200 mph have been recorded. And just because that isn’t enough fun for one day, let’s throw in a lot of bicyclists and an insanely steep/windy road with no guard rails.

We breakfasted at the B&B at 8:30 and then hit the road. As we were driving (following the GPS), we suddenly found ourselves on a toll road. Uh oh. What if we don’t have enough cash to pay for this? What if it’s pay with chip & pin credit only? Well, we were on it, so we decided to just zip along at 80 mph and take in the French countryside until we hit our exit.

When we did eventually reach our exit, we were horrified to find no toll booths with humans. Only machines. And we didn’t know which lane to get in to pay with cash. We figured the two lanes on the left were likely the French version of the Easy Pass, as cars were zipping through those lanes without slowing down much. The other lanes, we had no idea. So we just randomly picked one and drove up to the machine. Guess what language the instructions were in? But there was a slot that clearly took the tickets, and there was a slot that appeared to accept coins. A figure of 3.80 euros popped up the screen, and I scrounged through my purse for enough change to feed the machine and escape the toll booth. It worked! Thank God.

We found ourselves winding through small towns looking for the mountain. That’s right – we couldn’t find the mountain. Kind of like the time in Hawaii when we couldn’t find the volcano. How do you miss a volcano or a 1,912 m mountain? It takes talent that we clearly possess.

After tooling around the countryside for a bit, we spotted signs for Mont Ventoux, so we just followed them until we reached the base. And then we went up. And up. And up. Up through hairpin turns on tiny narrow roads, skittering around bicyclists living their Tour de France dreams. I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut. At every turn I was certain we were either going to roll backwards down the steep slope, fly over the edge to a fiery doom far below, or kill one of those cyclists. I was freaking out. Damian was loving it.

An eternity passed as we crawled up that mountain. Apparently Damian was driving too carefully for some of the other drivers on the road, because we were literally passed by four Porsches in a row flying up the road at breakneck speeds. That was a fine example of testosterone in overdrive. Luckily those idiots didn’t kill anybody that day.

Despite my doubts, we made it to the summit! There were mostly cyclists at the top, though there were a few other tourists. I was most surprised to see a tour bus up there. I have no idea how that giant beast managed to traverse such a tiny winding road. We smiled, checked out the view, bought some trinkets, snapped some photos (we’ll take your picture if you take ours!), and did not fall off the mountainside. Then we had to drive down the other side of the mountain. But I’m not going to think about that right now. I’m going to think about it later. My face pretty much says it all in this shot.

Image

All that adventure made me hungry, because I just hadn’t eaten enough French food at that point. Our plan for the afternoon was to explore a few wineries in the Côtes du Rhône wine region, and our guide book recommended a few in a loop that began with a visit to the town of Séguret. We struck out for Séguret, planning to have lunch there before continuing on to the wineries.

This turned out to be the right choice. Séguret is a gorgeous hillside village, and once you enter (on foot) through an arch, it feels like you’ve been transported to another time period. No cars drove in this village, the narrow cobblestone streets were beautiful, and the views were breathtaking. I would love to return to Provence and stay in one of the quaint little hillside hotels of this small village.

We found a restaurant with outdoor terrace seating, Côtes Terrasse (photo below), and a view off into the French countryside. We both enjoyed a glass of white wine, salads, and small dishes of homemade vanilla & chocolate ice cream while soaking in the wonderful weather and terrific views. The food was good, but the location was the most memorable. And, in a vacation that offered little down time, those long meals really gave us a chance to pause and appreciate the culture, the views, and of course, the food.

Image

After lunch, we struck out in search of our first stop on the wine trail, Domaine de Mourchon Winery. Secluded is the word to describe this winery. We thought it was a 5-minute walk down a small road from Séguret, but we quickly found out that was not the case. We hoofed it back to the car and discovered it was about a 10-minute drive into the middle of nowhere. Which made the views beautiful, of course.

Run by a pair of friendly Scottish dudes, it made for an interesting tasting experience. Apparently French wineries are famous for being very serious and less-than-friendly to patrons, so we liked the idea of a couple of jovial Scottish guys. We tried several wines, none of which knocked our socks off, but wine tasting is one of my favorite pass times, regardless. Our host, one of the Scottish owners, was very informative, though, so we learned a bit about the age of the vines and the effect age has on quality and taste. Obviously aging wine in a bottle improves the taste, but apparently older grape vines – and many of their vines were 60 years old and older – also improves the taste.

Just before we finished the tasting, we were overrun by 25 American tourists who had signed up for a private luncheon/tour followed by a tasting, so we got the hell out of there and moved on to our second winery: Gigondas. The guide book said we would find two women owners who were friendly and ready to pour us wine in little bottles straight from the barrel, and that sounded intriguing. If those ladies exist, they were not present at the Gigondas Winery we found. I think this may be because “Gigondas” actually refers to the southern part of the Côtes du Rhône wine region, and the winery we found may be one of many that sport that name.

In any case, the guy who served us was reserved, spoke no English, but was willing to muddle through with us anyway. We used lots of gesturing and pointing to try three deep reds, all of which were very impressive. Because we would either have to drink any wine we bought during our trip or lug it back to the USA, we only bought one bottle.

Our last stop was the Domaine de Coyeux Winery. Our Rick Steves’ guide book had this to say, “A private road winds up and up to this impossibly beautiful setting, with the best views of the Dentelles I’ve found. Olive trees frame the final approach, and Le Caveau signs lead to a modern tasting room.” Well clearly we have to go there! Getting there, not so easy. We got lost. With the GPS. When Rick says “private road,” he means “tiny road you’ll never find.” But we were tenacious! And by “tenacious” I mean that I reminded Damian repeatedly how he’d put me through the Mont-Ventoux ringer all morning, and we were going to find this place or else.

We found it. And it was amazing! The olive trees, the views, the wine – all of it. Amazing. We were the only people there, but a friendly young French guy who spoke perfect English was ready to throw wine at us and chatter with us companionably about the region, the winery, and of course the wines they have to offer. These wines were the best we tried in the region – just fantastic, and we bought two deep reds which I somehow managed to lug home to the states without incident.

On the way back to the B&B we decided to buy gas. We’d used a half tank, and we figured a full tank would be sufficient to get us through the rest of our trip. But the station we pulled into had zero attendants, and the pumps only accepted chip & pin credit cards, all of which we discovered after pulling in at the pump.

Grrr.

So Damian pulled a move used by my Uncle Bruce when he was in France. He got out of the car, waved some money at the guy behind us, and convinced him to use his credit card to fill up our tank in exchange for cash. The guy spoke no English, but money talks and they worked it out. We filled the tank for 30 euros and hit the road again.

We found our way back to our B&B, cleaned up, and headed out to explore Avignon. We’d seen some of the city, but we had yet to visit the star attraction, the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), which was built in the 1300s. Historically, this palace became home to the popes when they were attempting to escape the violence of Rome. We wandered the streets of the walled city, and eventually we found the palace. The sun was beginning to set, and the shadows climbed high up the walls of the palace. We found an outdoor restaurant where we could sit beside the palace, allowing us to enjoy the fine weather and the magical view of this historic building while we ate.

Image

Another beautiful day in Provence. The next day we rose early to make the trek to Switzerland….

Pont du Gard, Arles, Les Baux-de-Provence (Day 7)

Image

In my last post, I originally announced that we would summit Mont Ventoux on day 7. That was a mistake. We had planned to do just that on the morning of Wednesday, May 28th, but, with the advice of our bed & breakfast hostess, Aida, we flipped our days around and opted to explore Pont du Gard, Arles, and Les Baux-de-Provence instead.

We started the day at 9:00 AM with a breakfast including flaky croissants (I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to eat one in the US again), four types of jam, cheese, yogurt and coffee. There were no other guests staying at the B&B at the time, so we ate by ourselves. Well, Aida kept us company, chattering away, laughing often, gesturing wildly with her hands – she’s an energetic fireball of a lady. She’s tiny – there’s no way she weighs more than 100 pounds – but she’s a spitfire. Tons of personality in one itty bitty little package.

After breakfast, Aida kindly offered to drive us to the rental car office. We rented from Europcar this time, and the lady who helped us was a riot. After we complained about our previous rental experience with Avis, she gave us a conspiratorial look and said in her heavy French accent, “Oh, Avis.” Cracked me up. The rental agreement was fairly complex, because we decided to drive from Provence to Switzerland (the alternative was 3 trains and a full day of travel) after using the car to explore Provence. There’s a stiff penalty for dropping a rental car in a different country, but it was worth it. We also opted to pre-pay for a full tank of gas so that we could bring the car in with an empty tank. Getting gas in a foreign country – not the easiest task! I didn’t want a repeat of the Great Gas Station Chase in Caen. The challenge then became this: can we push the car into the rental agency in Switzerland on fumes?

We got the car (no error codes!) and set off to explore Provence. We began by visiting Pont du Gard, which is an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge. (That’s us in front of Pont du Gard in the photo above.) It was built in the 1st century AD. Let me say that again – the 1st century. I had literally never touched anything that old in my life. It’s massive and jaw-dropping to behold, and, much like the cathedrals, I found it unbelievable that such a structure could have been constructed by humans without the help of modern machinery. The weather in Provence was gorgeous that day, and we enjoyed walking around in the sunshine, admiring the water and the structure that spans it.

Afterward, we drove to the city of Arles. I found Arles to be a beautiful French city, with lovely streets, abundant windowsill flowers, lots of outdoor eateries, and lots of charm. We visited the ancient Roman amphitheater first, and I felt like I was transported straight into “Gladiator.” Walking around the ancient arena, built by the Romans around the 1st century AD, brought to mind thoughts of the battles that were fought while the crowd cheered from their seats. I read a plaque that noted the coliseum was constructed in such a way that people of different classes could enter and exit without ever meeting. The place might have given me the creeps, except there were elementary-school children being given a lesson in “combat” in the pit. Fake armor, wooden shields and swords, and instructors firing off instructions in rapid French. I wanted to join in, but I didn’t want to get taken down by a 3rd grader.

Lunch time! We chose le menu at an adorable restaurant called Au Brin de Thym. We couldn’t really understand our waiter or the menu, so we just asked for le menu specials of the day. It was the right choice. The meal began with artfully arranged, impossibly thin cold zucchini slices topped with Parmesan cheese and olive oil. The main course featured a whole fish served with colorful vegetables. Its eye was looking right at me. Luckily, we’d had fish fileted table-side in the past, so we knew what to do. And it was heavenly good – so tender and delicious and fresh, even if it did give me the evil eye the whole time. Dessert was a white cheese with jam for Damian and a fresh apple tart for me. We only had one glass of wine each to compliment the meal, because I didn’t want to fall asleep before visiting one more place.

Les Baux-de-Provence was our next destination, and it may be my favorite French village. Set high up in the hillside, the views from the castle ruins that top the town are staggering and breathtaking. If you can get up there. We walked through the town proper and enjoyed the beauty and charm of the cobblestones, narrow lanes, and little shops. Then we bought tickets to tour the ancient castle ruins all the way at the top. The stairs to reach the highest points were so worn by visitors over the centuries that they sloped in dangerously. Signs everywhere announced “danger!” in many different languages. But we decided to brave the steps and make our way to the top. The view was worth the trek. Spectacular. This is us at the top:

Image

I don’t know what the hell I was thinking with those shoes.

After a full day of exploration, we were wiped out. We chose to visit a local market to buy cheese, bread, wine and fruit to enjoy at the B&B rather than heading back out for a big dinner. It was a lovely and mellow way to cap off a wonderful day in Provence.

 

On to Provence! (Day 6)

Image

Ever since I read Peter Mayle’s wildly funny book, A Year in Provence, I’ve wanted to visit the south of France. So we rose early and left Normandy at 6:45 AM on Tuesday, May 27th, to make the trek from the north of France to the south.

Had we been running The Amazing Race, this is the leg we would have lost. Road blocks popped up at every turn, and at one point I thought the universe must be conspiring to keep us out of Provence. Surely it was impossible that so many things could go wrong in just one day of travel.

At 6:45 AM, with protein bars in hand, we waved goodbye to the peacocks of Chateau de Pont-Rilly and set off on our drive to Caen to return our POS Avis rental car. (Dear Avis, please buy some new cars.) Damian decided that we absolutely had to fill the tank with gas, even though we’d only used a quarter of a tank. This quickly turned into mission impossible as we followed the GPS through turn after turn after turn in Caen without any evidence of a gas station. We changed coordinates to a BP, as it appeared to be the closest gas station.

We drove until the GPS announced, “You have reached your destination, on right.” Uh, what? I see a church, not a gas station. You? Maybe the nuns pump gas in Caen. Who knows?

We had tickets for a 9:00 AM SNCF train to Paris, where we were scheduled to pick up our high-speed train, the TGV, directly to Provence, and it was now after 8:30. As you might imagine, I was getting antsy. I was in favor of taking the hit on the gas. Damian was not. We kept looking for an elusive gas station.

At 8:40, we found one. I tried not to chew my fingernails off as Damian literally ran inside the station to pay (no paying at the pump!), only to learn that, if you want to pay by credit card, you need to use pumps 1 through 4. Guess which pump we were parked beside? Not 1, 2, 3 or 4. He sprinted back out, moved the car, sprinted back inside, was told in rapid French to pump the gas first, then pay, sprinted back out, pumped the gas, back in, paid for the gas, jumped back in the car, drove to the rental car office, parked the car in the lot, and literally ditched me to run to the office.

It’s 8:50. Our train was set to leave in 10 minutes. Thankfully, nobody was in the rental car office. Damian handed over the keys, and we ran to the station.

Lucky for my husband, we made the train.

The train departed, on time, but about 15 minutes into the journey, it stopped without warning. We sat there, not moving, for 20 minutes, which was enough time to get me really wound up about making our next train. Thankfully, we started moving again, and less than ninety minutes later, we hit Paris. We needed to take the metro to Gare de Lyon, the major train station with the high-speed TGV trains. It’s one metro train, a few stops, no problem. Or so we thought. When we arrived at the correct track, it was mobbed with people, and we noticed that the sign announcing the arrival of the next train was not moving off of “3 minutes.” Um, what is going on here?

An announcement came on in French, and while we couldn’t understand it, I’ll tell you what we did understand: everybody left.

Holy hell! You have got to be kidding me.

We had to catch our high-speed train, and our metro train was broken, or delayed, or whatever – that train was not going to take us to Gare de Lyon.

We went back to the map to find an alternate route. We found a route, requiring a transfer, that would take us to the train station. But we needed to hustle, so we moved fast through the underground and hopped on board our first train. Luckily, once you’re in the underground, you can go wherever you want until you exit without buying another ticket. We changed trains, rode a few more stops, and finally hit the Gare de Lyon station.

Once we arrived at Gare de Lyon, we found the train tracks and arrival/departure boards. We found our TGV train and learned that we were supposed to be in hall 2. This is when I looked up and saw a sign that said brightly, “Bienvenus au hall 1.” Great. Where the hell is hall 2?

Fortunately the French are fantastic about putting signs everywhere, and we were able to find hall 2 and our correct track. We even had about 15 minutes to scarf down some lunch, and go in search of a pharmacy, before we boarded the train. Damian was sick at this point, so when he spotted a sign for a pharmacy, he went looking for ibuprofen. To get ibuprofen in France, you have to speak to the pharmacist. You can’t just grab it off the shelf and pay for it. So he did. She asked him why he wanted the drugs (in French), he told her he had a headache (in English), and he left with a pack of 400 mg tablets.

Next, we climbed on board the train, made our way to our seats on the upper deck (two seats beside big windows facing each other), and I finally let myself exhale. Not long after, the conductor welcomed us aboard, and we were off! We were going to make it to Provence.

And then the train stopped. No idea why (I still have no idea why). An announcement in rapid French told the other passengers what to expect, and, because I couldn’t understand the message, I watched the other peoples’ faces. A couple of them laughed in a manner that said, “How ridiculous is this?” – but nobody looked alarmed or particularly put out, and nobody made a move to get off the train, so we just stayed put and tried not to freak out.

About twenty minutes later, the train started moving, and once it hit full stride (at 177 miles per hour) we rolled on to Provence without further ado.

We rocketed from the north to the south in no time flat, and when we arrived at the train station, we hopped in a cab for a short jaunt to Avignon and our bed & breakfast. The first thing I noted about Provence was the weather – it was gorgeous and sunny! Such a 180 from the rain and chill in the north.

Avignon is a walled city, which gives it a medieval feel, and the B&B we chose Le Clos de Rampart (if you click on the link, you can see pics of the room we stayed in – the blue room) is inside those walls. Our hostess, Aida, met us at the door and ushered us in, calling us “my darlings!” and just generally charming us silly. She really went above and beyond to make our stay memorable.

Our room was very spacious, with a private tiled bathroom (think French bathroom downstairs in Sunshine, fam) and windows that opened up to the garden. It was a lovely departure from the small size of our Paris hotel room.

It was around 4:00 PM, I think – after our long day traveling, we cleaned up and took the camera and a bottle of wine outside to the garden area to relax before dinner. Aida brought us a lovely tray with some wine glasses and some pistachios. She also recommended a restaurant in Avignon within walking distance, and she called to make us a reservation for 8:00, noting, “They don’t like to serve before 8:00.” Okay fine. We were used to the French dining late. We relaxed and enjoyed the pretty space and gorgeous weather while sipping wine and looking back over the photos we’d taken thus far. It was nice – we needed more moments like those.

Image

Eventually we strolled out for dinner, winding our way through the narrow streets of Avignon, to an old water wheel that no longer functions but remains as a piece of the city’s history. We admired it for a bit, and then made our way to our restaurant, called 75. The place was beautiful, and le menu offered some interesting choices. We shared a bottle of white wine, and I started with anchovies (don’t think canned, think fresh) served over a fresh bed of mint and finely diced cucumbers, mullet with creamy risotto, and a strawberry tart to complete the meal. I can’t remember what Damian had, but he says he liked it, so we’ll just go with that.

We crashed hard that night with the windows open to the cool night air. The next day we explore Provence…..